How Pirelli paved the way for a furniture revolution

How Pirelli paved the way for a furniture revolution


I’ve been learning more about the history of furniture design. While I was reading yesterday, I discovered a surprising name: Pirelli. My immediate thought was that I must have misread the passage. Certainly a tire manufacturer wouldn’t have a place in the pantheon of furniture design. So how did this remarkable love story come to be? To understand this we have to blend science, finance, and design. Our story begins with Eric Owen and E.A. Murphy in the year 1929. These two British chemists worked at Dunlop Rubber (another titan in the tire industry) and created latex foam rubber. To say this invention was disruptive to the manufacturing world would be an understatement. This versatile material almost knew no bounds and was soon gracing bus seats, mattresses, and all manner of surfaces. Latex foam rubber took the world by storm and became the launching pad for researching other rubber varieties. It wasn’t long before designers, eager to explore new complex shapes, came calling.

Architects were perhaps the group most passionately seeking new possibilities with this wonder material. This storm of ingenuity culminated in 1936 when Milan hosted its sixth Triennial. (These Triennial celebrations were created for the sole purpose to exhibit great design and spark creativity.) The theme for 1936 was continuity through modernity and it brought out the great minds we recognize and cherish today. Showcased among works from icons like Picasso and Le Corbusier was a chair by architect Franco Albini. Many people filled the exhibit hall during this celebration, soaking up every bold color choice and gentle curve. Some of these folks may have strolled by the chair and quickly moved on, but a team from Pirelli happened to be there and they couldn’t get past Albini’s special chair. You see, the Pirelli team went there on a mission. With Dunlop’s success, Pirelli was keen to fund other ventures and diversify their business model. With diversification came profits and longevity. This one design planted a seed that would bloom twelve years later. Join me as we learn how Pirelli paved the way for a furniture revolution…

Following the end of WWII, the world was filled with hope and ready for change. Innovation, imagination, and inspiration abounded. Eager consumers and talented designers supported and built an ecosystem of creative solutions. From furniture to tableware, everything was re-imagined. During this era, MOMA capitalized on the democracy of the new design movement by hosting a low-cost furniture design competition. To mark the occasion, Franco Albini’s colleague Marco Zanuso submitted a chair that celebrated the union of metal and fabric. Pirelli was entranced and the idea that started in 1936 was crowned with the founding of Ar-flex. The goal for this division was to create flexible, innovative furniture. Zanuso partnered with the Pirelli team as they pioneered the use of foam rubber in furniture. Those beginning years were filled with flurries of sketches, prototypes, and passionate late-night design sessions.

How Pirelli paved the way for a furniture revolution

The Lady, at home at the Met Museum

In 1951, a few years into its existence, Pirelli returned to the Milan Triennial as Ar-flex – not as bystanders, but as participants. Their design, the Lady armchair, was awarded the prestigious golden medal. The accolade proved they were onto something special. Maybe it was due to their focus on materiality or their desire to disrupt the cultural status quo, but there was a collective fire in their belly. Fueled by the critical praise, their sights were set on not just transforming the domestic landscape, but also the work environment and the automotive industry. Every design was approached with the greatest care. Every situation was separately considered with the same attention to detail. Their guiding doctrine explored how comfort and elegance could co-exist – how technological developments be gracefully integrated. By 1966 their philosophical ambitions were captured on the printed page with the magazine Ottagono. This publication illustrated the history of modern design in Italy, giving voice to the developing movement. Modern designers enjoyed the support of many champions and it’s cool to see how a maker of tires could transform into such a proponent. So the next time you ask the question: what makes good design? You can look to your car for some inspiration…

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